When the winds of change blow, some people build walls while others build windmills – Chinese Proverb

4C7U9924The changing face of retail in Belize, fueled by increased Asian, Middle Eastern and Central American immigration over the past three decades has impacted the way of life for Belizeans in every possible way.  While we take for granted that the ubiquitous corner Chiney Shop, open anytime, is convenient, this shift in retail control has led to the virtual demise of traditional distribution channels and has significantly impacted the health of our population, taxation, building standards, and the environment.  While the visible proliferation of Chinese retailers and food vendors of all size and scope now dominate the landscape, the shift I speak of includes armies of tacos vendors, expanding girlie bars, as well as Indian clothing stores, and cell-phone sellers, largely manned by recycled groups of immigrant workers.

A drive around Belize City at prime time in the evening shows a picture of working class Belizeans standing in front of dimly lit barred-windows and crowded storefronts, jostling for their turn to buy a cheap Styrofoam container of fried chicken and a stout, and possibly his favorite boledo numbers scratched on a piece of paper.

This single scene paints a vivid picture of the impact of this shift.  The run-down structure with barred-window may be a symbol of an escalating crime trend against immigrant small business owners, but also belies the volume of sales that they undertake, sales that mostly escape the already porous taxation net.  The sidewalk littered with discarded food containers, plastic bags and empty bottles, due to the absence of trash receptacles, eventually find their way into drains and waterways; manifesting itself in floods that impact poor communities in low-lying areas.   The food itself, fried in days-old cheap cooking oil in inadequate kitchens that should not, (but somehow does), pass health inspections.  Most of these establishments are licensed to sell alcohol not for consumption, yet bottle openers are prominently placed where patrons may open and drink publicly, and more than likely, the lottery sales are sold on handwritten pieces of paper that go unreported, traditionally known as PUP lottery; (a curious name for an illegal activity).

That scene as described epitomizes the violation of so many laws, yet this has become the face of commerce, far removed from the traditional distribution channels of years past.  Somehow, these shops seem to pop up almost overnight, and the owners; locked in their cash-machine prisons, known only as “Chiney” to most of their customers, quietly count the cash, educate their children in the best schools, and find entertainment in late night gambling among their own community members.

Chinese Shop in poor neighborhood
Chinese shop in poor Southside neighborhood

The retail story is the obvious side of the supply chain, that which impacts the consumer.  If one were to take a peek through the curtain at the engines that drive these networks, however, one will realize the true impact on Belizean life.  Similar networks exist in all immigrant segments in Belize, with the features being the same: Immigrant, sometimes temporary workforces from their home country as opposed to Belizean citizens; internal financing among paisanos; special relationships with government officials, elected and otherwise, and centralized sourcing practices.

I once asked a Chinese businessman how it is that these monstrous concrete structures seem to appear overnight, chock full of Asian origin goods, each almost a replica of the others in design, layout and inventory selection.  His unverified reply was that there exist programs sponsored by the Chinese government whereby members of the Chinese diaspora globally are able to gain extremely low cost financing through institutions and vendors in China to find the purchase of already cheap materials and goods for investment in foreign countries.  In the case of Indian merchants, the financing is more localized, with key cash sources providing financing in a form of franchising and supply on credit to new immigrant operators that wish to establish retail outlets.  Even the simple immigrant taco vendors, seen at every street corner, benefit for a loose network of cart franchising and bulk procurement in a centralized enterprise, all below the radar of government authorities, and outside the formal banking sector.

Traditional wholesale and retail has been completely upended in this new landscape of commerce.  Once-large import trading houses now find themselves faced with stiff competition from counterfeit versions of brands for which they once held exclusive distributorship, and cheap knockoffs of everything from whiskey to corn flakes now dominate the retail sector.  This challenge is further exacerbated by the more recent trend for bulk buying by merchant aggregators within retail networks, who drive down wholesale margins to mere pennies, forcing traditional wholesalers to either abandon brands, or to find other ways to survive.

From a quality and standards standpoint as well, this phenomenon is ushering a fast race to the bottom; and monitoring systems paid for by dwindling government resources can hardly keep up.   It has become a known practice, for instance, for retail merchants to turn off their coolers and freezers at night to save on electricity; and for goods to be stored openly in huge non-ventilated concrete structures; leading to high incidences of spoilage as well as expiration of goods that never get removed from the shelves.

I mean this article in no way to cast shade on any ethnic group or their business practices, which in their home country may be perfectly acceptable.  Those that choose to call Belize their new home, however, should recognize that they have a responsibility to care for those that they call customer, and that respect for their new home should compel them
to do things better.  This two-way street of disrespect between merchant and customer, worsened by the inability or unwillingness by government officials to enforce rules, has reached a crescendo whereby the opportunity being seized by new retailers to serve products to a poor population is quickly degrading the very customer base they serve.  This will no doubt have disastrous long term ramifications on the health of our population, the finances of our nation, and our environment.

Yes, the winds of change are blowing, but those that see opportunity in those changing winds, please let’s construct windmills that will power us into a more positive future.